In my last post, I talked about scarcity as one of two main barriers that usually get in the way of setting and sticking to our own boundaries, in order to respect our needs. Today I want to talk about a second obstacle: guilt.
Healthy guilt shows up in our lives when we’ve done something out of line with our values and, typically, it helps us get back on track. But most of the time, what we’re actually dealing with is toxic guilt. Toxic guilt stems from a belief that everyone else should come before us. So, I want to invite you to start by asking yourself this: did you do something out of line with your values? If the answer is no, then it’s toxic guilt you’re dealing with, and it’s not serving you. Remind yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong, even if it feels that way.
On that note, we can reframe that “guilty” feeling we get by naming it for what it really is. If you catch yourself saying “I know this is the right thing to do, but I feel so guilty”, try this trick of language: replace the word “guilty” with “sad”, and see if it fits. For example, “I know that I need to end this relationship, and I feel so sad.” Is sadness the emotion that you were really trying to name? If so, I hear you. It’s sad and heartbreaking, and I know we all find ourselves wishing it wasn’t part of life – but it is. It’s an important and necessary part of life to end relationships when they’re no longer working. At the same time, it also makes sense that you’d be grieving that.
As another example, we can try it in difficult situations that call on our humanity. Instead of saying “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so guilty”, rephrase it to this: “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so sad”. Again, you can try out the words and then notice how it feels inside.
It’s absolutely normal for sadness and grief to arise when we love someone and are also watching them struggle. We often wish the people we care about in our lives didn’t have to struggle, or that we’d be able to take away their pain for them. We wish we lived in a world where people didn’t have to struggle for basic needs, and there’s a deep and touching sadness that shows up in all of us when we confront the unfairness of this truth. Yet, there’s something different and powerful that happens when we can let go of the individual trapping of “guilt” and allow ourselves to feel the depth of communal grief underneath. When we allow ourselves to feel grief, we can experience empathy and compassion. When we get stuck in toxic guilt, we instead experience pity and eventual resentment.
How to say no without guilt in one simple step
Since we’re on the topic of guilt, I want to share one more thing with you today. Now, I don’t want to be flippant because I know it’s way harder than it looks from the outside. At the same time, what if I were to tell you that there really is one simple step to saying no without guilt? I actually have a way to do this! You’ll have to forgive me, though, because it’s simple, but not easy. Here it is:
You have to say no with guilt a bunch of times first. Do it with kindness, do it with integrity, but do it. And hold on to the truth that you’re still a good person. Time and time again, I hear from people that the more they practice saying no, the less guilt they feel. They start to see that they can remain compassionate, connected, and generous while still being able to have human limits.
Are you looking for a deeper dive into letting go of guilt? I have an entire section on exactly that in my Big-Hearted Boundaries online course. Big-Hearted Boundaries offers you 8 practical steps to prevent burnout and create sustainable caring. The way we can do this is by making whole-body decisions that are in line with our values, setting boundaries accordingly, and working through the shame and guilt of saying no to the things we don’t want in our life – which makes room to say yes to what’s important to us. If this sounds like something you could use, make sure to check out the full course curriculum and register here.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.